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A Symphony Can Be Uplifting

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mweiss

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Apr 19 2005, 04:47 AM

Last Friday night (4/15), I attended a dress rehearsal of a regional symphony orchestra.

I was there for the purpose of preparing for the early stages of a possible recording contract; ie., getting familiar with the venue, the orchestra and the politics of it all.

This particular night, the orchestra was preparing for a performance of La Traviata in concert form.

I sat in the middle of the front row of an otherwise nearly empty theater of 2000 seats, with nothing but my notepad and a pen, assiduously taking notes, sketching diagrams of the stage and noting possible microphone and camera locations.

Now and then, I would get a curious glance from the conductor, the tenor soloist and some of the violinists and cellists who were closest to the front of the stage. Little did they know that I was there on a mission to provide them a gift of incomparable value, pending my doing a superb job of negotiating the deal.

I will have to negotiate a deal with my best powers of conveying the concept of mutual benefit. This is a union orchestra. As such, I have to sell them on the concept that my recording will benefit them in numerous ways.

I had some brief conversations with a staff person for this orchestra, along with some lengthier e-mails, where I proposed some ideas and she quickly shot them down. I see that there are some restrictive limitations that I will have to find a way to negotiate my way out of, in order to make this project the success that it ought to be.

Getting back to the rehearsal, it was an uplifting experience. The orchestra was only rehearsing, but each time they played a phrase, or started from a particular bar, they played like a well-oiled machine, with precision and effortless finesse. The orchestra sounded like a fine classical recording--note perfect, no sour notes, not a glitch in the tempo. In one break, the conductor was explaining to the horn section how he wanted a certain staccato style of playing and with a bit more emphasis on certain bars. He didn't use much technical terminology, but instead made sounds to imitate what he wanted the horn players to do. I found that rather amusing.

There were three vocal soloists in this opera: a baritone, tenor and a soprano. All were excellent, although I could tell who was familiar and who was not familiar with the music.

The rehearsal started at 7:30pm and ended on the dot of 10:30pm, when the conductor thanked the players.

All during this time, I had walked the auditorium looking for electrical outlets (there were none), and determining best locations for camera angles. The theater is in an old building, but it had recently been renovated and was in nearly pristine condition. The acoustics were very good. I found my way up to the balconey and walked the width of it, glancing at the stage and imagining what kind of lens would best get the shots. Then I returned to the main floor and went back to my seat, scribbled some more notes on my pad and continued to watch the busy hive of people during intermission. Each session was about an hour and fifteen minutes. I note that 90-minute tapes will be a tight fit and that any unmanned cameras will have to be started up a few minutes in advance of the show.

The orchestra chair announced the 4-minute warning before the next session was to start. I found my liason contact person and she asked me what I thought of the orchestra and venue so far. I expressed positive impressions and that I had come up with some ideas on where to place cameras and microphones. She introduced me to the stage manager, and he suggested a possible position for a camera to cover the conductor, and that the stage set had a trap door that could be opened for this purpose. Time was short and the orchestra was about to begin, so I went back to the center, but this time the third row. I wanted to get a better sense of the sound from further back, as the front row had too much separation from the soloists on the left and right sides of the stage. Third row, center, was much better, sounding more like stereo.

If I had my druthers, this is where I'd place the 'microphone tree' (I coined the term because the framework of the support mechanism holds five microphones for 5-channel surround sound and as such, looks a little bit like a mechanical tree).

In reality, given the extremely tight requirements and restrictions, I have a hunch that they won't allow such a contraption in the important real estate of the third row. I'll most likely end up with eight microphones in an arc surrounding the conductor's podium. That would be a more intimate sound, but not like the sound the audience would hear.

The orchestra played as they worked on more sections of the piece. It was a nice, pleasing sound, not very loud, but not too soft either. It was drier than one would hear in a recording, but very smooth and detailed. And the different sounds coming from various directions across the stage made for a fascinating sonic experience.

I noted that cellos can play in much higher ranges of scale than I had assumed til now. I thought they sounded rather like violas than cellos at times.

And then there were the voices. The tenor had amazing room-filling volume. Amazing, I thought.. there is no amplification, but this man's voice projected almost as if hundreds of watts of amplification were assisting it. Actually, all three vocalists were something extraordinary.

The rehearsal and 10:30pm came all too quickly. But the memory of the music and the uplifting nature of seeing scores of musicians perform their magic together, demonstrated one of the highest levels of civilization. Here was man doing his finest accomplishments in the world of esthetics. The musicians were all people that had worked hard for many years to achieve their level of skill. And yet they played with such ease as to belie their effort, their playng seeming as natural as breathing is to any living creature.

By the end of the night, and on the drive home, I felt energized, uplifted. Classical music, performed live, by virtuosic-level musicians is a unique and valuable experience. Seeing a concert of this variety is something that every intelligent human being owes himself. It is the expression of man's highest values.

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